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Voters Could See Smoother Side of GOP Ticket in 2016 VP Debate

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will but the smoother side of the GOP presidential ticket on display in Tuesday night's vice presidential debate.
Image: Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Gov. Mike Pence Attends House GOP Weekly Conference
U.S. Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Mike Pence addresses a news conference with House GOP leaders following a conference at Republican headquarters on Capitol Hill September 13, 2016 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Since the day Indiana Governor Mike Pence was tapped by Donald Trump to be his running mate, the big question has remained the same: How would the soft-spoken, non-controversial Midwesterner square up with the GOP presidential nominee's outsized style and statements?

In the first and only vice presidential debate Tuesday night, the nation will likely get at least a partial answer to that question in the form of a man who remains the antithesis of the bombastic Trump.

Full Coverage of the Vice Presidential Debate

“You know, Donald Trump is a -- he’s bigger than life. He’s known all over the world -- you know, he’s a charismatic figure,” Pence tells crowds often at campaign stops, including at a town hall last month in Springfield, Missouri.

The Hoosier then follows with the punch line, “so obviously they wanted to balance the ticket,” which is greeted with soft laughs from the crowd.

Pence has a penchant for self-deprecation, always noting the difference in “styles” between he and Trump.

“He’s New York. I’m Indiana,” Pence recently said on MSNBC.

But the nationally televised debate is serious business and Pence’s spokesman, Marc Lotter, said the governor began preparing for it just over two months ago when he joined the ticket. Lotter said Pence's senior team of advisers “developed a plan" early on to "make sure he had the time and information he needed to be prepared for the debate.”

“And he’s been executing that plan,” Lotter said.

Pence has worked through debate prep binders since the GOP convention and spent the weekend with his family at a cabin in southern Indiana, preparing “informally” for Tuesday.

He has held mock debates with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who played the part of Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine. The most recent session was last Wednesday when Pence visited Walker in Madison, Wisconsin.

As the number two on the ticket, Pence’s poised – and defensive -- response to controversies surrounding Trump, including the mogul’s criticism of a Gold Star family and reviving questions over President Obama’s birthplace, has been to try and march the ticket forward despite the distractions at the top of it.

His efforts have not always been supported by his running mate, however. for example, before last week's first presidential debate, Pence repeatedly suggested that Clinton is “untrustworthy,” a line of attack Trump failed to pick up to the extent many Republicans had hoped.

Now in his own debate, Pence, who has often taken sharp jabs at the Clintons, could delve into concerns about Clinton’s private email server, the Clinton Foundation or her role during the Benghazi attack – areas left mostly untouched by Trump at his debate.

Over the last three months, the candidate has also not held back from directly taking aim at his counterpart, Kaine.

At a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in July, Pence fired away after Clinton’s selection of Kaine: “I got to think that Hillary Clinton picked just the right person if she wants to keep America on a path of economic decline.”

He then blasted the Virginia senator at several campaign stops in September for his reference to Trump’s visit to Mexico as “diplomatic amateur hour.”

Yet the candidate has shown a willingness to also be publicly deferential to his Democratic opponent on a personal level.

“People talk about how [Kaine and I] are similar. And you know, he’s the father of three; I’m the father of three. [He’s] dedicated to his family. He’s been a governor, now serves in Washington, D.C.; I served in Washington, D.C., and now I’m a governor,” Pence said into a microphone in Waukesha, Wisconsin, during the Democratic National Convention. “But that’s kind of where the similarities end.”

It's a side he's shown in previous political debates. Four years ago during his run for governor, the moderator at the Indiana gubernatorial debate asked Pence if he’d like to rebut his Democratic opponent on a point about college affordability.

“Well rather than rebutting, let me agree a bit with what Speaker [John] Gregg said earlier,” Pence said in the first debate of that race. “I worked my way through law school, too -- we were actually in law school together around that time. I remember John. And I think he makes a valid point.”

Those 2012 debates, however, also give insight into Pence’s ability to avoid directly answering questions – a characteristic he carried through his tenure in the governor’s office and during this campaign.

Pence, in one of the debates, provided a smoothly-worded response to a moderator’s question on whether he’d sign a bill giving local school districts the authority to require the teaching of creationism in their schools – but he ultimately left no clarity over whether he would, indeed, sign the actual bill.

“I don’t think there’s anything that ails education in Indiana that can’t be fixed if we give parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach,” Pence responded, continuing: “Issues of curriculum should be decided by local schools, not out of Indianapolis.”

And when the Democratic candidate would attack his record, Pence would most often ignore the hit delivered his way but, at times, would, instead, push back while maintaining his collective temperament on stage.

“John, you’ve thrown a lot of definitions my way – one of them is career politician,” Pence responded at the duo’s third debate. “I think people do deserve to know you spent 16 years at the statehouse -- that’s four more years than I’ve spent in public service. And I honor your service -- I honor any man or woman willing to serve.”

Pence, who served twelve years in Congress, has shifted his attention to the Hoosier state over the last four years as governor, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week in a radio interview: "For me, after the last four years and up to this very moment, my focus has been here in the state of Indiana as governor of Indiana. But I’ve been brushing up on all the issues you deal with everyday and that I dealt with in 12 years in the Congress. We’re going to do our level best to be ready."

But the aide assured NBC News that Pence, in actuality, has remained plugged into national issues, calling him “very well versed.”

Pence will hit the road following the debate, heading out on a four-state, four-day bus trip with campaign stops from Virginia to Ohio.